Friday, January 16, 2015

5 x 5 Book Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman

1. First of all, this book by Jill Lepore is not a secret history of Wonder Woman in the sense that it tells the story of Diana of the Amazons, Wonder Woman, superhero, associate of Superman and Batman, member of the Justice League, &c. This is  the secret history of the creation of that character: how the motivations and values and experiences of William Moulton Marston and his associates and his unusual, cobbled-together family all fed into the Wonder Woman mythos. There are call-outs to the comics themselves, of course, and quite a few samples of four-color panels among the illustrations, but the book is more in the nature of an author biography and less an exegesis of an oeuvre; more Will in The World than Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare.

2. And this is not the secret history of Wonder Woman's creator that every comics fan thinks they know. Lepore covers the usual bases: Moulton was a psychologist (well, yes, technically - but with a much more checkered academic profile than we think); Marston was the inventor of the lie detector (well, yeah, kinda - he invented one of them); Marston was a polygamist with two wives (well, yeah, sorta - more accurately, he and his wife shared an additional wife); Marston was into dominance and submission (well, yeah, you could say that - but not in the way that most people imagine). Where the book breaks new and exciting ground is in exploring the heretofore unexamined aspects of Marston's adventures: his identity as an entrepreneur, almost an impressario; his early connections to the suffragist and feminist movements; his close connection to Margaret Sanger, the slightly tarnished saint of the movement that would become Planned Parenthood; and how he used his total control over the creation, writing, and presentation of Wonder Woman to forward his philosophies.

3. In fact, this is not really a comic-book-book. Lepore was apparently not a comics fan, someone seeking to unearth the treasure of her favorite fandom. She is a professor of American History and a cultural historian; she has written on the American experience through the lenses of language, the concepts of life & death, Colonial era war, post-independence race relations, and the writings of Ben Franklin's sister. She brings the same scholarship and seriousness of purpose to her inquiry into Marston. Her non-fan's take on the sections delving into the comic book subculture brings a fascinating perspective and sensibility and only occasionally misses a nuance. This book deserves to be shelved with David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin as much as with Douglas Wolk or Scott McCloud.

4. Speaking of scholarship, the research evident in the book astonishing. The work of a historian - the sifting of documents, the collation of information, the verification of sources - is palpable on every page. This is a virtuoso demonstration, a talented scholar marshaling primary sources to build a coherent picture of obscure events and adding insightful analysis to make meaning. I am tempted to use this as the model text for my research writing class: you can almost inhale the scholarship.

5. Notwithstanding its rigor, the book is a wonderful read. I read mostly non-fiction these days, and much of it can be a slog; this book was quite the opposite. I took it as a vacation book on a trip to California and I could not have been more pleased. Lepore's prose is cogent and springy and occasionally charmingly idiosyncratic. Besides learning a lot, I enjoyed the book immensely. Read it and see for yourself.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman
Jill Lepore
Alfred A. Knopf, New York

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